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Celebrating The Legacy Of Langston Hughes


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. From the Harlem Renaissance to black power, Langston Hughes spoke to the life of African-Americans. The neglected son of a famous abolitionist family, he immersed himself in books. Eighteen years old and just out of high school, he saw sunset on the muddy Mississippi from a train and wrote the poem that introduced the world to Langston Hughes, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers."

LANGSTON HUGHES: I've known rivers. I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. My soul has grown deep like the rivers. I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I've known rivers. Ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

CONAN: Langston Hughes would have been 110 yesterday; he died in 1967. What should we teach young people today about Langston Hughes? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, actor Anthony Mackie from "The Hurt Locker" to "Man on a Ledge," but first Langston Hughes. Nikky Finney, the winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry, joins us. She's a professor of English at the University of Kentucky, with us from member station WUKY in Lexington. Nice to have you back with us.

NIKKY FINNEY: Thank you, Neal, thank you so much.

CONAN: And when your students first come into class, what do they know about Langston Hughes?

FINNEY: They usually know the first poems that they might have been taught by a teacher, that kind of thing. They know something about the Harlem Renaissance. They know a little bit, perhaps, about the blues motif that ran throughout so much of his work.

CONAN: But there is so much more.

FINNEY: Oh, there's so much more. You asked in your opening comments what should we teach, what should we be talking about in terms of Langston Hughes today, and I would just answer: everything. I would talk about his essays, which for me as a freshman at a small college in Alabama, I had never read "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" until my great and best teacher, Dr. Gloria Wade Gales(ph), put it in front of me.

And it was not - it was in that moment that my life changed, that I understood the kind of artist and poet that I could become, that I could mix politics and poetry, the beautiful and the ugly all in the same pot, and I could make something that somebody might lean into and think about what it meant - what it might mean to be human in America in whatever year the poem was heard.

CONAN: As your students learn more about Langston Hughes, what do you point them to?

FINNEY: I point them to - you know, in America, I think we look at the short, rather whimsical poems that had a lot packed in them, but you know, just like many other things in America, you know, Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" speech, we play it over and over, and when we pull back the covers a little bit, we find so much more that's there.

And so I love talking about some of the other poems that are longer. I love looking at his fiction, as well as his short poems, to fling my arms wide in some place of the sun, to whirl and to dance 'til the white day is done. That's a traditional classical American poem. And hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.

Those poems are like just so important, but there's so many other poems that we don't study by Langston Hughes that I try to make sure they put in front of themselves, and they get a pencil, and they circle all the poetic devices and things going on in those more complicated Langston Hughes poems.

CONAN: Yes, and you're a teacher of writing, and they have to study those devices.

FINNEY: They have to study those devices.


CONAN: But there is a moment, I'm sure, where you want to just let them sit back and listen to the rush of the words.

FINNEY: Oh, like the piece you opened the program with, Langston Hughes's voice, thank goodness we have it. Thank goodness we have it to go alongside what he was saying, because the poem that you just played is so beautifully read by him. And it's just - it's important to, I think, hear the poet's voice alongside that mellifluous quality of the poem itself.

CONAN: We want to hear from our listeners as well. What should we be teaching a new generation about Langston Hughes? 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Let's start with Indira(ph), who's calling us from Norman, Oklahoma.

INDIRA: Hi, yeah, I think it's really important to first of all teach all children that Langston Hughes even existed and the relevance of his political statements on how people of color are being excluded or how their lives might be different than people who never think about these things.

I myself did a poetry project in seventh grade, about 1973, using Langston Hughes. It was an all-white school, I'm half-Asian and half-white, my children are also African-American, Asian and white. And anyway, I was given an F for the - I was a straight-A student, and I was given an F - and I was told Langston Hughes is not a real poet.

And my English teacher gave me an F, and the ironic thing is the way I got exposed to Langston Hughes was reading Jonathan Kozol's book "Death at An Early Age," where he was fired from the Boston public schools, it's about the destruction of the hearts and minds of African-American children in the public schools, where they're not taught about their history or their value or African-American literature.

And he taught them about Langston Hughes and was fired for it, and I thought it was really ironic that I got an F on my poetry project. And I think today, when they are trying to destroy ethnic studies programs, making them illegal, defunding them in Texas and Arizona, which operates to further alienate people of color - and I'm talking about everyone, I'm talking about Muslims, I'm talking from whatever country, I'm talking about Latinos - I think that it's a very pernicious path that they're going on.

And I think more than ever, Langston Hughes' poetry, like "America Never Was America To Me," which juxtaposes the beauty that the American dream holds for everyone of every color, and the fact that it's not realized and the pain that causes even to this day, I think that's so important for people to be exposed to.

CONAN: Indira, I think if you've still got a copy of that report, if you send it to Professor Finney, she might recalculate your grade.

FINNEY: Absolutely.


CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, we appreciate it.

INDIRA: Thank you, bye-bye.

CONAN: Arnold Rampersad wrote "The Life of Langston Hughes," published in two volumes. He's professor emeritus at Stanford University's English Department and joins us now by phone from Negril in Jamaica. And it's good of you to join us.

ARNOLD RAMPERSAD: Well, thank you very much. I'm happy to be here.

CONAN: And what do you think? Obviously you've spent a great deal of time studying the life and work of Langston Hughes. What do you think, if we could capsulize it, we should be teaching a new generation?

RAMPERSAD: Well, I think we should be teaching a new generation some of the points raised already on the program, but for me, what Langston Hughes epitomizes above all is a love on the part of the poet for poetry but a love also for African-American culture in all its forms, and a love of the blues and jazz, a refusal to be ashamed of the realities of one's cultural experience.

But the dedication to poetry is something that we shouldn't avoid at all, talking about Langston Hughes set out from very early in his life, as you pointed out, Neal, to be a poet, and very early on he wrote "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," and that became his signature poem for the rest of his life.

So he was determined from the very beginning to make a living for himself only through writing, only through literature, and especially through poetry, and that dedication to literature, to cultural expression, seeing the importance of it is something I think we should never lose sight of in talking about Langston Hughes.

CONAN: I was reminded of a phrase just today, looking back at some material - in fact some of the material you were writing, and that was the phrase literary sharecropper that he used to describe himself.


RAMPERSAD: Yes, he talked about himself as being a literary sharecropper. This was in the '50s, in particular, and '60s. Of course he died in '68. In other words, keeping at it religiously, relentlessly, keeping at the business of writing, of trying to reach people, to communicate with them, reading his poems and reading his essays wherever he could to whomever wished to listen to him, that total sense of dedication to art and also to reaching particular bodies of people and especially young children, very important audience to him.

That was something that was a signal(ph) side of Langston Hughes, and helping also younger writers.

CONAN: And we associate him, I think, a lot with the Harlem Renaissance, but this is a man with a very long career, a very complicated man.

RAMPERSAD: Yes, he was a star of the Harlem Renaissance, no doubt about that, along with Countee Cullen, probably the two outstanding younger poets of the Harlem Renaissance. And there's that essay, "The Negro Speaks of - the Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," that was a kind of manifesto of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

But he lived on into the 1930s to write a great body of radical poetry but also to produce some plays that were nonpolitical in a sense, and then he continued out into the '40s with literature devoted to the civil rights movement and the - all the way down to the black power and black arts movement.

I mean, he was on the scene tending to his craft and trying to reach as many people as possible.

CONAN: We're speaking with Arnold Rampersad, who's the biographer of Langston Hughes. Also with us, Nikky Finney. Her collection of poems, "Head Off and Split," won the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry. She teaches English at the University of Kentucky.

What should we teach a new generation about Langston Hughes? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. In 1955, Langston Hughes recorded selections from his volume "The Dreamkeeper" for Folkways Records. He wrote that book especially for young readers at the suggestion of Cleveland librarian Effie Lee Powers(ph). Here's Hughes reading one of those poems, "Homesick Blues."

HUGHES: The railroad bridge is a sad song in the air. The railroad bridge is a sad song in the air. Every time the trains pass, I wants to go somewhere. I went down to the station, my heart was in my mouth, went down to the station, heart was in my mouth, looking for a boxcar to roll me to the South.

Homesick blues is a terrible thing to have. The homesick blues is a terrible thing to have. To keep from crying, I opens my mouth and laughs.

CONAN: We're talking today about Langston Hughes, who would have turned 110 yesterday. What do you think young people should be taught about the poet? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests, poet Nikky Finney, and Arnold Rampersad, author of "The Life of Langston Hughes." Let's see if we go next to another caller. Lynn's(ph) on the line, Lynn with us from Rohnert Park in California.

LYNN: Good morning. I think it's really important for young people and all people to know about Langston Hughes, to know that he wrote "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" as an 18-year-old traveling on a bus down to Mexico to visit his father, who had left the United States because he didn't feel enough freedom as an African-American man, and that Langston Hughes really lived his life as a public intellectual.

And that's a thing that I always want to point students to because we live in this popular culture where the intellect is denigrated and, you know, that Hughes is a cool guy. He didn't use dialect, necessarily, but he had all these blues and jazz themes and connected his poetry with music, which is why Dave Brubeck set a lot of Langston Hughes' poetry to choral music.

I'm a choral conductor, and so I have conducted and recorded some of Brubeck's music that's set to Langston Hughes poetry like "The Dreamkeeper." And this word dream comes up in Langston Hughes' poetry all the time. He says bring me all your dreams, you dreamers. Bring me all of your heart's melodies that I may wrap them in a blue cloud cloth away from the too-rough fingers of the world.

And he just tells us exactly how he feels a bit about the hurt artist, intellect, but that's striving for a dream of freedom.

CONAN: Nikky Finney, that's certainly among the themes in his work.

FINNEY: Absolutely. I was thinking, as you were asking the question and as the caller was talking, you know, one of the things that we could do with Hughes's work, I think across the board in terms of American culture, is look at how Hughes stressed his love of himself in all - in so many different ways.

You know, in the courage, resiliency, the strength of black culture, the humor, and if we could get young writers proud of themselves, proud of - no matter what community they come from, writing with that kind of verve and that kind of spirit, that could be something that the legacy of Langston Hughes could be used for and with.

LYNN: Yeah, he was one of the very first Afro-centric writers in the country.

CONAN: Arnold Rampersad, remind us, he did make an early visit to Africa.

RAMPERSAD: Yes, he made a very early visit to Africa - excuse me. He was barely 21 when he decided he wanted to go to Africa, and he would get there by any means. And he joined a ship as working in the kitchen and sailed up and down the west coast of Africa, and it made a huge impression on him, and he wrote some wonderful poems that - out of that experience.

CONAN: Lynn, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

LYNN: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we go next to - this is Austin(ph), and Austin's on the line from St. Louis.

AUSTIN: Yeah, I wanted to mention the fact that I believe Langston Hughes was also a great humorist. I mean, I was - I'm a huge fan of his Jesse B. Semple series, and there's a lot of - it's a very, it's plainspoken, the way it's written, but there's a lot of - there's a lot in there. It's easily absorbed.

And he's not - Langston Hughes isn't all serious, as far as topics go, but - I mean, there are a lot of deep topics that were covered, but it's just the way it's written, it's very easy to absorb. It gives you an idea of how things were in New York at that time and just the issues that people face.

But it was something that was easily absorbed by people reading it.

CONAN: Nikky Finney, Semple is a character who is in a bar in New York and explaining things in his own voice, sort of in the Mark Twain tradition in an odd way.

FINNEY: I think that I could agree with that, Neal. But the other thing that - coming so specifically out of the African-American culture, and the caller is absolutely right - you're there reading these American, these amazing scenes that Hughes has written. And if you're not careful - and I put my quote, the quotation marks up - you'll find yourself learning a world of things about human nature.


FINNEY: You're laughing. You're at the bar. He's looking at the woman down from him, and you're also learning about something outside the door, around the corner, in Harlem, in New York, in America. And you put the book down, and you can't believe how much you've learned about who we are as human beings.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Austin.

AUSTIN: No problem, sir.

CONAN: Emery Wimbish, Jr., is former dean of the Langston Hughes Memorial Library at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, Langston Hughes' alma mater. As a young student at Atlanta University, he met Langston Hughes, and he joins us now from his home at Lincoln University, Pennsylvania. Nice to have you with us today.

EMERY WIMBISH, JR.: Yes, I'm very pleased to be with you. I'm excited to be with you. I met Mr. Hughes when he came to Atlanta to teach at the university as a professor of creative writing. He was the first professor to have that title. I later had the privilege of hearing him talk to students. He was a guest lecturer in my English class at Clark College. Dr. Brooks invited him, and he virtually had a symposium.

He came, and he read many of his poems, many of the poems that we have heard today. It was a great pleasure to have that experience. Later I was able to get funds to invite Mr. Hughes to speak at his alma mater, Lincoln University. He did that long before his fraternity invited him, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity.

He came, and he gave a public lecture. That lecture was in Mary Dodd Brown Memorial Chapel. And finally, I had the great honor of being a - the temporary guardian of his gift to Lincoln University. He gave a collection of books, manuscripts and other memorabilia, which is housed in Langston Hughes Memorial Library today.

CONAN: It must have been - I've read that in fact he liked to go to the dorms and hang out with the students and tell stories. It must have been extraordinary to have that opportunity.

HUGHES: He certainly liked that. He liked the informal meeting with students. And you're quite right: He liked the formal lecture, but he also really liked to just sit around in the lounges in the dormitories and talk with students.

CONAN: Do you remember anything he may have told you?

JR.: Well, there were things that he told me that I certainly can't recall at this moment.

CONAN: Your memory, sir, is better than mine. Thank you so much for your time today.

JR.: Thank you very much for the opportunity.

CONAN: Emery Wimbish, Jr., former dean of the Langston Hughes Memorial Library at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, with us from that school in Pennsylvania. Email from James: His travel writings were simply fabulous, some of the most insightful and fun to read among travel books. Especially good is his humorous stories of the very religious sisters he lived with in Mexico City, their views on his chosen friends and his amorous experiences in Russia.

And Arnold Rampersad, yes, the amorous experiences in Russia, but those visits to Russia would come back to haunt him. They would be amongst the controversial passages of his life.

RAMPERSAD: Yes. Around 1932, '33, he began writing some of the most radical poems ever penned by an American writer. He stopped writing about blues and jazz, and, recognizing the particular pressures, economic and political pressures of the age, he made himself into a radical poet. And he wrote one poem in particular, "Goodbye Christ," which goes on to say, you know, hello to the worker peasant, me. That came back to haunt him.

When people on the far right began to go after him very seriously in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and he ended up before Senator McCarthy's famous or infamous subcommittee, he was forced to retreat, in fact, and to declare that poem in particular an aberration of his youth. How much he regretted having written it, I don't know, but he certainly was forced to take it back.

CONAN: And we hear the reverence in Emery Wimbish's voice of the - some members of the African-American community. In the 1960s, that was not always the case.

RAMPERSAD: I beg your pardon?

CONAN: There was - there were some elements of the Black Power movement that, well, had some skepticism about Langston Hughes.

RAMPERSAD: Yes, that's quite true. I mean, other poets got it worse than Langston Hughes, but it's a measure of the slight insanity of the times that Langston Hughes' credentials should have been called into question since he virtually invented the concept of black arts in the 1920s. But, yes, he felt a little bit of the hot breath of that particular brand of radicalism. But, well, he died in 1968, before, I guess, it could become worse than it already had been for him.

CONAN: Yet, today - due in no small part to your work, but today regarded as one of the major artists of the 20th century.

RAMPERSAD: Yes, that is quite true. And he lived to see his beliefs vindicated, his faith in black people, his extraordinary love of black people and his extraordinary love of America, he lived to see those ideas vindicated by time.

CONAN: Hmm. Interesting. Arnold Rampersad, thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate it.

RAMPERSAD: Thank you.

CONAN: Arnold Rampersad, professor emeritus at Stanford University's English Department, author of "The Life of Langston Hughes," which was published in two volumes, and joined us today on the phone from Negril in Jamaica. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And Nikky Finney is still with us from WUKY in Kentucky. And, Nikky, I know we've asked you to read one of Langston Hughes' poems.


CONAN: Would you go ahead?

FINNEY: Absolutely. "Let America be America Again," by Langston Hughes.

(Reading) Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. Let it be the pioneer on the plain, seeking a home where he himself is free. America never was America to me. Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed. Let it be that great, strong land of love where never kings connive, nor tyrants scheme, that any man be crushed by one above. It never was America to me.

(Reading) Oh, let my land be a land where liberty is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, but opportunity is real and life is free, equality is in the air we breathe. There's never been equality for me, nor freedom in this homeland of the free.

(Reading) Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? And who are you that draws your veil across the stars? I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart. I am the negro bearing slavery scars. I am the red man driven from the land. I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek, and finding only the same old, stupid plan of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

(Reading) I am the young man, full of strength and hope, tangled in that ancient, endless chain of profit, power, gain, of grab the land, of grab the gold, of grab the ways of satisfying need, of work the men, of take the pay, of owning everything for one's own greed.

(Reading) I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil. I am the worker sold to the machine. I am the negro, servant to you all. I am the people, humble, hungry, mean - hungry, yet today despite the dream, beaten yet today - oh, pioneers. I am the man who never got ahead, the poorest worker bartered through the years.

(Reading) Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream in the Old World, while still a serf of kings, who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true, that even yet its mighty daring sings in every brick and stone, in every furrow turned that's made America the land it has become. Oh, I'm the man who sailed those early seas in search of what it meant to be my home, for I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore, and Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea, and torn from black Africa's strand I came to build a homeland of the free.

(Reading) The free? Who said the free? Not me. Surely not me. The millions on relief today? The millions shot down when we strike? The millions who have nothing for our pay? For all the dreams we've dreamed and all the songs we've sung and all the hopes we've held and all the flags we've hung, the millions who have nothing for our pay, except the dream that's almost dead today.

(Reading) Oh, let America be America again, the land that never has been yet, and yet must be - the land where every man is free. The land that's mine - the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, me, who made America, whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain must bring back our mighty dream again. Sure, call me any ugly name you choose. The steel of freedom does not stain from those who live like leeches on the people's lives. We must take back our land again. America. Oh, yes, I say it plain.

(Reading) America never was America to me, and yet I swear this oath: America will be. Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, the rape and rot of graft and stealth and lies, we the people must redeem the land, the mines, the plants, the rivers, the mountains and the endless plane.

CONAN: Poet Nikky Finney, reading an excerpt from the poetry of Langston Hughes. More after a short break. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


CONAN: In just a couple of minutes, we're going to be speaking with actor Anthony Mackie. But right now, we'll continue our conversation about the life and work of the great poet Langston Hughes. Our guest, Nikky Finney, who won the National Book Award last year for her book of verse "Head Off & Split," an English professor also at the University of Kentucky. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go next to Rachel, and Rachel's with us from Portland, Oregon.

RACHEL: Hi. This is just a phenomenal and timely program. So thank you for bringing his voice back on the air. I just wanted to share, there's plenty of questions of what we should be teaching our young people about Langston Hughes. I think that Langston Hughes embodies what we should be teaching our children, period, from all perspectives.


RACHEL: And the word that immediately came to mind is bravery. As the mother of a seven-year-old poet, I recite - I've been, you know, reading and making up poems and - for my son since he was born and sharing how people like Langston Hughes, in his accessible words and voice, can help facilitate children to being brave in sharing their own words and voice. It's the biggest gift that we can give many of our children right now. And he absolutely embodies that, among many things. So bravery is the one word that really came to mind. And I just want to thank you for bringing this back and having this discussion. Hopefully, a lot of people are hearing you talking about life and Langston Hughes, all of you, and your strong words.

CONAN: Thank you, Rachel. Thanks for the kind words, and we appreciate the phone call. Nikky Finney, bravery. A bookish young man who said he fled into literature out of loneliness because he was, well, to some degree - he came from an activist family, a famous family, but they did not pay much attention to young Langston.

FINNEY: Correct. And one of the things that I've read about him, and I believe very powerfully sometimes, that when you're born into a family, and that family has certain wishes for you, certain things that they think you should be and do, and you have your own understanding of those things, that one of the ways you can save yourself, one of the ways you can keep your hands around your spirit and what you want to do is through the power and magic and wings of books. And I believe he was able to hold onto his courage. I believe he was able to hold onto his sense of himself through the pages of books.

And, Neal, if I could just respond to Rachel's statement about bravery, the poem I just read, "Let America Be America Again," is full of so many different kinds of emotions: anger and love and courage and the sort of irony of this poem, if you read the entire thing - and you could hear how long it is. But you cannot do what some politicians have done in the last few years. They love this title, "Let America Be America Again." And they go, oh, yes. This is - we're going to put this on our website. We're going to use this as our campaign slogan. And then they don't read it.

And you can't - with all of Hughes' beautiful language and beautiful words, you can't do that. You have to come into the entire notion of what he's talking about as a poet, because the bravery that he's asking us to wear, the courage he's asking us to hold onto is in every line, every stanza. And so to just take a snippet of the title or the one line, you miss so much of the full dimension of Hughes' courage and his bravery. And so I just wanted to tell Rachel thank you for reading to your son Langston Hughes. I think that's how we will be - finally become America again, through those kinds of one-on-one acts with our children.

CONAN: This email from Jane in Denver: I taught my students about Langston Hughes in Denver in the 1980s. In April, after my fifth-graders had taken the state tests, my student, Heather, raised her hand and said, Ms. Anne, there wasn't one question on the test about Langston Hughes. And I suspect - I asked you at the beginning what your students coming into class knew about Langston Hughes. And I was surprised that they knew so much. I would've been more expectant to hear, yes, they knew the name, yes, they heard about this black poet of the Harlem Renaissance, but I suspected they had not read very much of Langston Hughes.

FINNEY: Well, I think it depends on the class too, Neal. Some years - you get some great information and you know that some students have had some amazing teachers. Other years, not so good. And so I think, though, Langston Hughes is the one poet that - African-American poet, poet from Harlem Renaissance - that is accessible, that people do, teachers do - not always, and I'm not saying that, not always and not enough, certainly not enough - but I do have students who are familiar with Langston Hughes on some small level.

CONAN: Nikky Finney, as always, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

FINNEY: Thanks for calling, Neal.

CONAN: Nikky Finney is the author of "Head Off & Split," which won the National Book Award for Poetry last year. She also teaches creative writing at the University of Kentucky and joined us from WUKY, our member station there. We'll be talking with Anthony Mackie in just a moment. Stay with us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.